The book David refers to "Cutting with Stone" was highly recommended by a good friend, but I really struggled with it. I have resolved to give it another try though so I can see if it too is one of those that simply must be read at the "right time."
So I asked David, and he has graciously consented, for permission to reprint his opening article from the October issue of RA News: Stuck in a Book. If your library is lucky enough to have a subscription to the Novelist database, you too may be able to subscribe to this delightful newsletter and get the benefits of David's monthly musings.
Stuck in a Book
by David Carr, editor, RA News from Novelist
Earlier this year I reviewed a book I loved: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. In my review, I said that its excellence would make it difficult for me to find another book of similar magnitude. I wonder if that is one reason why I now find myself stuck in a fine police novel about postwar Britain, Flesh Wounds by John Lawton. I am enjoying it, and I'll read other books in this series; but I feel that it will never end. It seems to be adding new pages as I read. Meanwhile I am eyeing, almost apologetically, other books waiting for me: "Sorry, Philip Roth, Tana French, William Trevor, Joan Silber, this is just taking a little longer than I had expected." So my pleasure is diminished and I am not giving Mr. Lawton my best attention while it feels as if my other (better, smarter?) books wait patiently. It is their unrealized reader who is impatient.
So many conditions have to align properly when we read, I think. We need true reading time, not just a stolen few minutes before sleep. We need a book that moves us forward with complexity and engagement, not density and confusion. This means fictional lives with human characteristics and consequential presence in our imaginations. And we need to be able to finish the book in a reasonable span of time. The alignment of all these things -- and there are many more, I believe -- is often out of our hands. Ideal conditions are episodic and temporary, like a patch of great weather.
This has become more important to me as I begin to think seriously about setting some clear reading plans. I have classics, crime novels, westerns, Victorian fiction, novels of the First World War, countless essays, nonfiction works, all in my "to be read before death" lists. I don't want to cheat myself of Middlemarch or At Swim-Two-Birds or What is the What because I made an easy choice that I seem unable to finish up. (Listen to me: I'm complaining when I read, complaining when I don't read. Fickle, feckless.) In this case, what has happened to me is that I picked this book up instead of another, started reading and felt the casual commitment turn into a reluctant obligation, even as I read other nonfiction books and professional articles for my classes.
My feelings as a reader are mixed. I need to read something fresh, but -- you probably know the story -- I'm more than halfway done, it's really a pretty interesting narrative and the characters and their behaviors fit my tastes. I'm just not enchanted. I wish I were reading more happily, less perfunctorily, and faster. Those great books -- they make it harder for the "merely" good ones.
So fellow readers what do you think? Do find yourself reading a book to completion because you feel like you've invested time in it already? Do you have criteria you use to decide when to abandon a book? When to put it aside to return to later? How often do you put a book down?
Again, many thanks to David Carr for permission to reprint his thoughts.